Proficiency and Accreditation in the Cannabis Industry
The function of the third-party test lab is to ensure that the cannabis products producers sell meet safety and quality requirements for the patients who buy them. But who ensures that the labs are doing the right thing the right way with the samples they are entrusted with?
In the cannabis industry, an important step in protecting patients and consumers is testing. This step ensures that the products are of high quality; that is, they have consistent strength, have no microbial or chemical contaminants, and will generally be considered safe for consumer or patient use.
Producers rely on third-party test labs to provide these services and quality data. Test labs use validated testing methods, but the methods vary between different labs, as do the quality programs.
This leads us to an important question: how do producers know that the results they have are accurate and repeatable? One important way that labs can compare their test data to other labs is through an accreditation and proficiency testing program.
Accreditation is a way to identify labs that have the technical expertise to perform specific testing. It is also a way to formally recognize competent labs. It allows the customers a way to select reliable service providers for their testing needs based on the standing of the lab by the accrediting organization.
Accreditation programs vary in how they are administered. The basic idea is that to achieve and maintain accreditation, a lab must show compliance with the requirements of the accrediting body. This includes an evaluation of the lab company and its testing records to ensure that it is performing its work correctly, using appropriate standards for testing and reporting results. It also provides the lab company an external benchmark to measure its competency.
The Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories is a great example of an industry-specific accreditation organization. It reserves membership to labs operating in the cannabis industry. There is an assessment of scientific standards and practices, as well as a proficiency testing requirement.
In Canada, there is not an industry-specific accreditation organization. However, Health Canada grants establishment licenses to testing laboratories based on very specific criteria for following intensive quality programs.
When considering a choice between test labs, asking about the accreditation they each hold is important. Also consider what will happen when you send a sample in for testing and the results are not what you expect. How will the test lab respond to your results? A sample that fails a specification is the most important thing to understand in the quality of service a lab will provide.
Here are four important topics to bring up with a potential lab:
- Ask about the training of the staff: is there a minimum level of education required for technical staff, do they have an on-going training requirement for the staff, do they maintain training records?
- Ask about the equipment used for the testing: are the instruments and equipment in the lab maintained on a schedule, are the instruments qualified, are the methods validated, is a validation report available?
- Ask about the materials used to perform the test: are the materials specified in the testing procedures, are they ordered from a vendor that has been qualified by the test lab, are the materials documented in the testing records?
- Ask about the procedure: has the procedure been validated, are the technologists trained, is there a competency or proficiency requirement for the procedure, what controls are used in the procedure and how often are they run?
The above information is outlined by labs that follow a quality program. A lab that can provide you with answers and documentation for these questions will provide you with reliable, consistent test results.
An equally important program is proficiency testing as a demonstration of technical competence. Proficiency testing programs provide unknown samples to the participants for analysis. The results from the proficiency sample are sent back to the program coordinator and each lab is compared to other participating labs.
This is an important tool for any lab. When a lab performs as expected, it shows that the lab is using a reliable method, the staff are trained sufficiently, and the instrumentation is operating as expected. When results from a proficiency test round are not what was expected, they provide important information to the participating lab about potential problems in the testing system.
Proficiency is an important assessment tool for a producer selecting a lab, too. This allows them an unbiased way to compare the reliability of the test methods between different labs. The proficiency data may not be publicly available, but if a lab is successfully participating in a proficiency program, they will be more than happy to share their results.
Accreditation programs are useful and important to laboratories, producers, and patients. Through accreditation, the cannabis industry can standardize what requirements it recognizes as important in the testing process.
Labs that participate in accreditation programs have a built-in mechanism to verify that they are doing the right things with the samples that they test, which adds credibility and value to their services.
Accreditation builds confidence in the entire system—confidence in the results, the test labs, the producers who chose the test labs for their products, the products themselves—and most importantly, patients can be confident that they are selecting high-quality, consistent, safe products for their own use. At the end of the day, that is what matters.